Essay: A Few Moths and Scattered Flames

Some thoughts on Poetry

The Ecstatic Drinker

Sober, the ecstatic drinker
throws his glass into the lake
and the entire garden is
reflected in its open oval,
lights as if from nighttime fireflies
float up the glass’s sides,
and into its cavity all the
lake’s waters flow until he
finds himself standing in a
dry crater, the
full moon of his own
face no longer reflected
on the shimmer of its

Shocked, he shakes the
glass, tries to pour the
lake waters out, but the
now sober glass remains adamant,
all that lovely water
trapped inside.

He feels desolate.
He sits down and sings a song.
The song invites all the
flowing things of the
universe to a rhythmic dance, ecstatic
to their Creator, trees to
fling their hair, flames to
turn cylindrical,
stars to join in
whirling circles around a
still center, and he
stands up himself and
throws back his head in song which is
rippling laughter, and a parallel

clap of laughter
rushes to his center from the
circling trees and hills, the
waters of the lake he
finds himself inside of rising
inside and around him,
the full moon of his
face illuminating the
late flight of herons to their
nests, their long
cries echoing across the
bright blue waters, the clear

glass of his
heart filling to its
open oval and
overflowing over and over as it
drinks and sings.

(from Chants for the Beauty Feast)

Poetry is the original language of mankind. Or, with a little imagination, it might even be said to be the original language of animals, those emotive creatures, who must choose resemblances and learn to decode the meanings of things in order to survive—or even bees, those most poetic of insects, scanning the flowery countryside for nectar and pollen the way a good student might scan the lines of a great poem, metrically buzzing in heart and head.

I could even go so far as to say poetry is the language of cells, who split and join, search and avoid, the way words fall into place to describe or evoke, emerging from silence. Or the DNA language, that scans, has recognizable meter, a certain grammar or prosody of associations, markers, signs… But that might be going a bit too far, though only Allah knows how far we might go in the mysterious workings of the imagination, that enters dimensions unreachable by reason alone, before we exceed or betray the truth.

Poetry is also the language of feeling, of spiritual states often and most purely beyond the reach of simple reason. In fact, in many cases symbolic or oblique language might be the best to connect with the raw reality of things, of how things are, as well as of states of intuition and realization that can’t be spoken of directly.

Allah gave Adam the wisdom of naming,

And God taught Adam all names,
then set them forth to the angels, and said
“Tell me these names, if you are truthful.”
(Qur’an 2:31, Thomas Cleary translation)

whether it was the names of the angels, known only to Allah before then, or of everything in creation in its pre-verbalized state, animals, plants, rocks, clouds… Adam suddenly had tongue and teeth and articulation that brought the world into focused being in a linguistic transparency for the benefit of all mankind: a veritable (virtual?) dictionary of wisdom language: Poetry.

God said, “Adam, tell them the names.”
And when he had told them the names,
God said, “Did I not say to you that I know
the secret of the heavens and the earth?
And I know what you reveal
and what you have been hiding.”
(Qu’ran 2:33)

Without attempting anything like a tafsir, this ayat, to me, is truly mysterious, and at the heart of our being human. Were the angels unnamed before Adam named them, or, if it is another interpretation, did nothing have a “name” until Allah inspired Adam, peace be upon him, with linguistic representations of the glorious and multitudinous “things” of His creation? And do these and all names spring from a secret known only to Allah? Is it only the secrets we hold deep in our own breasts that Allah is referring to, or something wildly deeper, secrets of the universe so arcane we have to struggle to name them, and only with Allah’s “dictionary of terms” can we ever hope to do so?

Rilke, in the Ninth of his Duino Elegies, echoes the Adamic mystery of this naming:

Are we, perhaps, here just to utter: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, jug, fruit tree, window–
at most: column, tower… but to utter them, remember,
to speak in a way which the named never dreamed
they could be? Isn’t that the hidden purpose
of this cunning earth, in urging on lovers,
to realize, through their rapture, rapture for all?
(William Gass translation)

Rapture, ah, the word that really opens us up to our urge toward true and vivid utterance.

Historically speaking, whether of our physical or spiritual history, I have a vision of the first humans (are we speaking of the first sacred two when no one else existed, and their progeny, or metaphorically thousands of whom the sacred two are the prophetic and Gnostic epitome?), in the great mystery of the origins of our consciousness, speaking Adam’s (peace be upon him) prophetic “poetics” of association and perception, resemblances and decodings, from the deepest source, that flows both from outward to inward and from inward to outward, which is what makes poetry—where before there was only silence, or incommunication (a new coinage? meaning, no communication at all!). Observations about light spraying through the trees, the weather, the greatness and awesomeness of the Woolly Mammoth, oh, whatever it might be… the death of a parent, a child, an animal. The flight of an iridescent bird. The roar of an invisible assailant. The soothing of a wound or an injustice. A falling rock. The sighting of a new star. Which sound in the night to fear, and which to find solace in. Love-stirrings. Overpowering awe at God’s Terrible Beauty.

If the roots of Arabic are deep in the soil of human earth, and are at base associative and many-faceted in meaning, then this proto-language which is also the language in use today, is itself a poetics, symbolic and evocative, even if the stilted flatness of journalism and the modern media have tried to iron all of its original poetry out of it. (Even a critic such as George Steiner implied in the first edition of After Babel, if I remember rightly, that the language of Adam was a proto-Arabic—though the idea of the original language of Paradise has been argued by Western scholars for centuries, in which Hebrew and Sanskrit are the major contenders.)

André Breton, the French Surrealist, said, “Astonish me!” (and shouldn’t it be that believers are in an even more constant state of astonishment than French Surrealists?). Out of the void a lush world blooms with all its streamers rippling in the cosmic winds. Irrational elements arise with it, mysteries, buffooneries, astonishments. Yes, even buffooneries!

As Dante shows us in the Divina Commedia, our proper attitude before Allah is one of bewilderment, where language stutters out of control to become the tongue-tied stutterings of ecstasy, all given their proper latitude in the teachings of our Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, who was no poet and didn’t “practice” poetry, but whose revelation has shown us the poetic scope of truth’s possibilities, epic grandeur couched in language of deep and excavatable meanings—a text capable, through the heart’s and mind’s engagement, of yielding varied interpretations (but is often, as the Prophet himself cautioned, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, beyond the reach of human understanding, intellectual and perhaps even to the secret of the soul, the sirr, in which case the only true understanding of what Allah means is by living embodiment alone), from the most literal and earth-surfaced signs or ayats, to the most deeply plumbed, esoteric and heart-stirred.

Generally, the isolated root-words in the Qur’an go back to a resonant concrete object as image, a life-snapshot in motion of some actuality, glimpse of a reality that then goes beyond materialism into the more “abstract” numinous realities that extend past the boundaries of all the living dimensions in both this world and the unseen. A familiarity with Lane’s Lexicon shows an abundance of abstract concepts that arise from root words referring to concrete details (the straightforward names of things) concerning camels, swords, light, water, etc. Poetic analogies, or “ideas” are extrapolated from these concretions, etherealized, internalized, made multifaceted by the grammatical extensions of the basic root letters.

From this whirling ocean of worldliness words emerge, fall into formations and even structured formalisms to become comprehensible sentences, bursts of word combinations, exclamations, questions, longings, the whole human gamut of expression that language, even flawed, is privy to, which can soar to the angelic, but also descend in a guttural tailspin to the demonic. Yet, taking into account Lorca’s understanding of the duende, or dark undersoul of our hearts, a different less evil understanding of “demonic” might just mean energetic and passionate illumination. William Blake, the most Sufic bard of our language (specifically English) often finds the energy of heaven and hell interchangeable, one with the light of the other, going to the source, as it were, of inspiration and visionary enlightenment (which is why I prefer William Blake to T.S. Eliot, because Blake understood with visionary immediacy the depths of Gnostic understanding. The Sufi poets, Rumi, Ibn Farid, Hafez would probably have found in Blake a true enlightened companion, and T.S.Eliot to be perhaps a bit too excessively Churchy, pinched and elitist, who distrusted “inspiration” as Blake and the Sufi poets experience it. Think of Shams’ “transgressive” behavior to expand Rumi’s heart to true m’arifa of divine recognition).

But words also float on the surface of the heartbeating urges to speech, and while at the same time that poetry can be very simple, it also engages complexities of response. Take Haiku, the exquisitely wrought Japanese form of a few lines in a strict metric quantity, also practiced in a way by Farsi poet and filmmaker, Iranian Abbas Kiarostami:

Autumn sunshine—
a lizard alert
on the mud-brick wall.
(Walking with the Wind, poems
of Abbas Kiarostami)

Often the most disarmingly unselfconscious ditty will have the most resonant meanings, as in the case of Emily Dickinson in the American tradition, again Blake, or some of Lorca’s gypsy songs. When a poem lodges in our hearts because it is strange but somehow familiar, going into a place in our consciousness perhaps like a flashlight into an attic, beaming itself in unforeseen corners, or when it seems to have that potential, then, I think, we are looking at poetry. It needn’t be “difficult” or “esoteric” at all, and may even be all surface, when it is a matter of true vision, an entirely new perspective from an unforeseen angle as if from otherworldly inspiration. Or it may be the torn heart in the throes of incredible yearning. Lament making up for its lack with utterance to bridge its feeling of separation.

When we look at the ecstatic poetry of Rumi (and even his more “sober” Mathnawi is a heart-opening, head-swirling experience), who maintains always the dimension of both loss and total unity, with jokes and asides and Gnostic teaching in between, giddiness, plainness, surreal but meaningful symbolism and abstract contemplation, and even a few buffooneries thrown in for good measure, we see the possibility for a true spiritual literature.

What I am getting at in a kind of irrational, mad way, is a very deep and passionate conviction that our most subterranean consciousness-soul is connected with the mysterious movements of the universe, and that the language of poetic utterance is what opens this connection up to us. If I say that the DNA is reciting poetry, or the amoebas are poetic fiends meandering around in a state of inspiration, well, I hope I can be forgiven, as it’s from this conviction. Although poetic inspiration does partake of the state of revelation, it in no way matches the prophetic revelation, which comes unbidden and untaught through prophets and the Prophet, peace be upon him, whose only “poetic” skill is utter and unflagging truthfulness. In her book, Muhammad, a biography of the Prophet, by Karen Armstrong, she gets very close to saying that the divine revelation was an act of creativity on the part of the Prophet, and referring to his accomplishment, says:

“To create (italics mine) a literary masterpiece, to found a major religion and a new world power are not ordinary achievements.”
(Muhammad, A Biography of the Prophet, American edition, p.52.)

I don’t say this. If the state of Qur’anic revelation may be thought of as a mode of poetic act, then Allah is the poet, not the Prophet. Still, wahy or inspiration, in Islam exists, and in lesser degrees by far, the poetic project can open sesame many treasure vaults of truthful understanding, on the molecular as well as the stellar level. We’re sentient pieces of lint floating in Allah’s vast universe, singing to ourselves. What are we singing? That’s what touches my heart, this knowledge and this hope that what we sing elevates us to our true dimensions, beyond, as Allah ta’ala says, that of the angels! I want to be a poet among the birds, or the high breakers of the sea. A poet of seismic convulsions and star-births. Star bursts! I can only really do this by expunging myself as much as possible, stepping aside to let the lightning speak on its own terms, bringing to the event only a taste for language, and a deepened and apprenticed skill in catching the fireflies of lightning in a mortal dimension so that others (and myself) can view them without burning entirely to a crisp. Prophecy and saintliness, however, doesn’t work at “poetry,” doesn’t carry a notebook in a little shoulder bag for notating instant inspirations, doesn’t type poems out or send them to magazines or hope to be published. I can’t imagine Rumi worrying about getting published!

The surrealists, French mostly, but also the Latin American and Spanish Surrealists, were my opening to the Qur’anic understanding, as well as that of the Mathnawi of Rumi. They went about expression in a new way, almost turning away their senses from the “object” in order to go deeper and find a strata unknown or unexpressed before. Then when Sufi poetry came along, I could recognize it for the dimension of spirit’s elusiveness that it is, and hear the language’s music as if from Tahitian tom-toms, or better, Balinese gamelan gongs, as if surging up from the bottom of the sea, or to the rational-minded, the “unconscious” or “subconscious,” though I dive down and find phosphorescent fish in the dark following the glow from their own headlamps.

When I reread my first stab at the opening paragraph, my dear wife said that she found it a bit preposterous, animals speaking “poetry,” and felt that what made us human was the speech that no other creature has to our degree. But I’m getting at not the actuality of “poetry,” but rather the sub-lingual mechanisms of a metaphorical grasp of reality, and the analogy holds for me that that’s what other creatures do in their own poetic way, though if they don’t have language perhaps they are even closer to nature, which also is “non-verbal.”

Language itself is a poem floating on top of the “objective” or “concrete” world. If we look at a blade of grass for a long time, why do we call it “grass?” It’s this long, green blade (already I’m using a poetic word-image, “long,” “green,” “blade,” to bring the thought to mind). But in itself, it’s simply what it is (sounds like a rap song!). I often amuse myself wondering what it might be that “grass” calls itself, if anything, or what “lions” call themselves, or “redwood trees.” We call other peoples by names we’ve given them, and are often surprised to find that they don’t call themselves by the same name at all. “American Indians,” for example, a name given to them by mistaken identity on the part of Columbus, who thought he’d reached India. The people themselves might call themselves by a tribal name by which somehow over time they have become distinguished from other tribes (and very often people in their own languages simply call themselves “the people,” though it may also be a kind of naïve arrogance that is saying that they are the only real “people,” and all the rest of us lesser creatures). So a blade of grass, “looking around,” might think itself different from, say, a cloud, and call itself… well, you make one up. But either it’s a lovely, sibilant musical sound with no rational meaning, or metaphorical analogy words, such as “vertical verdant eyebrow with no eye that grows upward from the ground,” or as Whitman called it, “the handkerchief of the Lord,” or “the beautiful uncut hair of graves.”

All I’m saying, really, is that poetry is the probing and expansive imagination living in the sounds and meanings of words, or an act of heightened speech to make the world more transparent, and its more intimate meanings to emerge, even if evanescent, or emotive. To get down to a core, or see more deeply into the flame before flying in. Or better, to see the Names of Allah behind every manifestation, by virtue of verbal corrective lenses, and then to go through the manifest names to He Who manifests them, Allah, the unified single Name Who contains all names. And this gets close to what shaykh Muhammad ibn al-Habib of Fez, may Allah protect his secret, says in his Diwan,

“Truly created beings are meanings
projected in images”

(The Diwan of Shaykh Muhammad ibn al-Habib, Madinah Press, Withdrawal into the Perception of the Essence, p. 75)

The purpose, for me, of poetry, then, is illumination, a form of dhikr with transformative capabilities. In poems it springs either from the humblest beginnings of simple human events or earthly objects and situations in which poetic imagination sees the galactic dimension, as it were, or from a self-contained inspiration, or wahy, that comes unbidden, enters the heart, lays waste to the kingdom of control, and takes over utterance into a new articulation. Illumination and ecstasy (I call my website: The Ecstatic Exchange, hoping that the reader on the other side is the gainful bargainer). Without this yearning or urge for a new wisdom, setting out in a poem seems like a humdrum project. And the model for this can even be someone like Antonin Artaud, the great, mad French poet and theater theoretician, whose visceral screams in words show human energy at its most fearsome, but who shows the way for a poetry that tries to go somewhere uncharted, takes risks of life and limb, and is fearless. Blake for me is that as well. And in the modern age, many of the Beat poets showed us all to go candidly and nakedly into raw thought and its bardic yawps to awaken the hearts and heads of the world.

Sufi poetry does nothing less than this, but in a way that is, perhaps, more Apollonian, to use a Western differentiation, because the illumination of the Sufi saints who write illuminative poems is beyond dimensions of passionate rage or frustration, though they enter the high light of intense and often delirious compression. Something cosmically impersonal happens, even as the shaykh poets are full and complete (“perfect”) human beings the like of which we rarely see today, although I think they have always been rare. They are the proof of divine inspiration, the inspiration I think poets are all longing for when they set out to express the inexpressible. We pray for divine intervention between our hearts and our pens like nothing else. “Take me over” we cry, “don’t let any of these words originate in me alone…”

In the world, but not of it, the great shuyukh who are also poets illuminate others by their words which glow from a burning core, and whose passage into the world opens our hearts to the glories of Allah: poetry as pure praise.

The Syrian poet, Adonis says in a final essay, Poetry and Apoetical Culture, in his book, The Pages of Day and Night, that with the appearance of the Qur’an the sense of divine inspiration was co-opted, that Arab poets before the Qur’an went into deeper, “subconscious” states, communicating with otherworldly forces, inspired with the unearthly, often attributing their brilliantly metaphorical effusions to helpful djinn, and with the advent of the Qur’an that was suspect (poets themselves were suspect, mainly for that reason) and the poets afterwards were left with expressing reflective commentaries on the Qur’an, the pinnacle of Arabic poetics having been reached and surpassed by the Qur’anic language, by analogy the way poets in English have Shakespeare’s shadow to contend with, either imitating it or contradicting it (either Hart Crane, a Shakespearean poet, or William Carlos Williams, the plain speaker breaking from Shakespearean rhetoric, with some inspirational jolts from Ezra Pound).

“Islam did not suppress poetry as a form and mode of expression. Rather it nullified poetry’s role and cognitive mission, endowing it with a new function: to celebrate and preach the truth introduced by the Qur’anic revelation. Islam thus deprived poetry of its earliest characteristic — intuition and the power of revelation, and made it into a media tool.”
(Adonis, The Pages of Day and Night, page 102)

I think this view is reductive, and post-Qur’anic Sufi shaykh-poets like Rumi or Iraqi or Yunus Emre of Turkey go into states as messengers perhaps of the truth, but not as prophets in the Qur’anic sense, and bring the continuous and uninterrupted message in illuminative language from an imaginal realm that is, at the same time, a lesser sibling of prophecy. After all, if dreams are a fractional part of prophecy, then poetry that springs from the same deep soul sources must be as well. And the Prophet himself, peace be upon him, said that

“In poetry is wisdom”
— Bukhari

while also cautioning us against its low excesses, its arrogant or show-off exaggerations—true, however, in every human endeavor.

When I was composing this ramble, I came across something from American poet, Robert Duncan, who says in his Structure of Rime, XXVII, pointing back to my first statements:

“In the Hive of Continual Images the Bees,
angelic swarm, build in the visible
cells a language in which they dance.”